"I was pulled off the ice from a "Learn to Play" program that I was instructing at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ by Flyers Asst. GM, Barry Hanrahan who asked about my playing history.
When Mr. Hanrahan began to type it into his phone, I got a little nervous and asked what this was all about?
A reply on the other end came through his phone and I was told to get over to the Wells Fargo Center immediately with my equipment. The Chicago Blackhawks want to sign me as their emergency backup goalie for the afternoon game against the Flyers...I said, Are you serious?"
Eric Semborski...23 Yr. Old NHL Goalie for an Afternoon
It took a couple of minutes for the reality of Barry Hanrahan's news to sink into Eric Semborski's brain. By then, the 23 year old graduate of Temple University, with a degree in Sports & Recreation Management, was racing to his home in Manayunk, PA to pick up his goalie equipment and get to the Wells Fargo Center in time for the pre-game warmup. Chicago goalie Corey Crawford had developed acute appendicitis once he arrived at the Wells Fargo and later underwent an appendectomy in a Philadelphia hospital. The Blackhawks were left without a backup goalie.
Under normal circumstances, the travel time through Saturday pre-Christmas shopping traffic from Voorhees to Manayunk - located in a northwest section of Philadelphia - to the Wells Fargo Center at the opposite end of the City of Brotherly Love, can result in a frustrating, white-knuckle experience. The potential for road-rage could even be multiplied exponentially for or a young kid rushing to sign an NHL contract with only minutes to spare.
That is unless the driver has the cool, calm demeanor of amateur goalkeeper and part-time coach for the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, Eric Semorski. After all, 'Sembo', a moniker given by his former junior and college teammates, was ready to accept the challenge of putting his slight frame in front of 100 mph slap shots; the likes of which he has only previously seen on television or from a seat at an NHL game that he had purchased a ticket for.
'Sembo', attired in an Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation T-shirt and sweat pants, navigated the traffic and lugged his equipment bag through the back door of the Wells Fargo at 12:05 PM. After sprinting up the hall to the visiting team's locker room, the Blackhawks training staff relieved Semborski of his equipment to get him set up in a stall beside starting goalie Scott Darling.
'Sembo' found himself ushered into a room occupied by Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman, Joel Quenneville and the rest of the Hawks coaching staff. Following brief introductions, Bowman confirmed Semborski's junior team experience with Jersey Wildcats of the Empire Junior League and pointed to a spot on the prepared ATO (Amateur Tryout Contract) and told 'Sembo' to 'sign here'! Time was of the essence as the Hawks new hire was about to make his NHL debut in just 25 minutes or so - albeit the pre-game warmup.
In these modern times of big contracts and signing bonuses you might be curious, as I was, if Semborski received any form of compensation? I learned in speaking to Eric a couple of days following his experience that no money changed hands. As a matter of fact the modest young man said, "I was so thankful for the opportunity with such a classy and great organization as the Chicago Blackhawks that I would have paid them for the chance."
I arrived at the Wells Fargo not too long after Semborski and proceeded directly to the visiting team locker area to say hello to Coach Joel Quenneville prior to the warmups. As someone went to summon Joel, I saw Stan Bowman exiting the coaches' room with cell phone pressed to his ear and a hurried step to his gate. I was soon to learn why.
Joel, with a look that might indicate his temperamental stomach disorder had flared up, informed me of the goaltending dilemma they had just solved with the signing of some guy named Eric Semborski to an ATO. Because of salary cap issues and roster numbers, the Blackhawks' only viable solution under terms of the CBA was to sign 'Sembo' as opposed to activating their goalie coach, former NHL goalie Jimmy Waite.
After a quick visit with Coach 'Q', I went immediately upstairs to the Press Box. I surely did not want to miss Semborski's NHL warmup debut. Like the Hawks coaching staff, I didn't know what to expect. It remained to be seen if the Blackhawks new backup could stop a beach ball let alone an NHL quality shot? The Blackhawks coaching staff lined the bench to pre-scout 'Sembo'. I think everyone was pleasantly surprised.
Wearing Corey Crawford's number 50 jersey, with a hastily manufactured "SEMBORSKI" name bar on the back, looked like a good fit. That in and of itself must have been a thrill for 'Sembo'. While the resemblance to Crawford might have ended with the jersey number, the young man moved around the ice and jumped into the net to relieve Scott Darling as though he had done it at this level a thousand time before.
From my lofty perch high above ice level I couldn't tell what was going inside 'Sembo's' mask or head. Purely by outward appearance, the 'fantasy camper' displayed confidence and an air of calmness as he charged outside the top of his crease to cut down the angle and challenge the shooters.
'Sembo' even made some quality saves early. Once the Hawks snipers had sufficiently built up the replacement goalies confidence they started picking the corners. It was then that reality set in for the young replacement and Semborski clearly understood why these players are the very best of the best.
It didn't matter to 'Sembo' that pucks were whizzing past him and the Hawks players smiled good-naturedly as they did so. This was a dream of a lifetime come true - even if just for one afternoon. If it all ended here, this pre-game warmup would become Eric Semborski's game 7 Stanley Cup Final that he often dreamed about as a kid.
After taking his final shots in the warmup, Eric Semborski stood alone in the solitude of his mind, soaking it all in and wondering where this journey would take him. Would he be a backup spectator with one of the best seats in the Wells Fargo Center or, in the event of some misfortune to starter Scott Darling, an active participant? He surely didn't wish any misfortune to befall Darling!
Semborski admitted to being a 'little nervous' but that sitting in the stall beside Darling really helped calm the emergency backup goalie.
"Scott Darling is a great guy . He was fantastic talking with me, made me feel welcome and a part of the team. Scott showed me the ropes and I just followed his lead ."
Once the game began Semborski took his seat on the spare goalie's chair near the runway, at the ready if called upon by Coach Quenneville. 'Sembo' shared with me that as he was getting dressed beside Darling, his conscious thoughts focused on hopes that the Blackhawks starter seated in the next stall remained healthy and didn't get hurt!
As the game progressed however, I saw a transformation in 'Sembo' that took him from nervous observer to being a member of the Chicago Blackhawks and a teammate. During commercial timeouts, as Darling made his way to the end of the bench that Semborski occupied, the two goalies interacted. From my press box seat I saw what appeared to be some cheerleading and encouragement being offered to Darling by 'Sembo'. When I asked Eric about this observation he confirmed it by saying, "After all, (unique situation Semborski was thrust into) it was still a hockey game and Scott and I were able to interact during commercial timeouts. I told him (Scott Darling) to keep battling and offered encouragement to my new teammate no differently than any other game I have been part of."
This was a "Wow" moment for me when I interviewed Eric Semborski. This Semborski kid is the real deal! While humble and very appreciative of the opportunity that the Chicago Blackhawks Organization offered him, Semborski didn't fail to mention how he also thought about the reason he received this early Christmas gift - Corey Crawford's appendectomy and hoped for the star goalie's quick recovery.
With full and honest disclosure, Semborski shared that in the back of his mind there was always the thought of being put into the game. The game situation and great guy that I know Joel Quenneville to be almost dictated that 'Sembo' would get his chance to live the dream.
With 1:32 remaining in the game, and the Flyers leading by a score of 3-1, Darling was pulled for an extra attacker. I said to the Chicago media sitting near me that if the Flyers scored an open-netter sealing the deal, don't be surprised if Coach 'Q' puts the kid in the net. While 'Sembo' was hoping that his new team wasn't scored upon he couldn't help but have the same thought as me. As it was later learned, that was exactly what Joel Quenneville intended to do had the Flyers scored - Semborski was going in!
Close but no cigar - the game ended in a 3-1 Flyers victory and Eric Semborski made his way to the Blackhawks dressing room to unknowingly await the media buzz that was to follow.
A large media scrum took place later in the same hallway that 'Sembo' had rushed through just a few hours earlier. Microphones and cameras were thrust in Semborski's face and he handled the media like a seasoned professional.
Once the media had their fill, Semborski met his sister Sara, their uncle who was in town for a company holiday party, and friends who found their way into the game anyway they could once the S.O.S. went out. 'Sembo' and his entourage all gathered at the closest Chickee & Pete's for a lengthy celebration. It's not every day, or quite possibly ever again, that Eric Simborski's name would appear on an NHL game stat sheet.
Before boarding their team bus for departure to the airport however, the Chicago Blackhawks extended their sincere thanks to Eric with promises of sending their 'one-day employee' some memorabilia and swag. The Hawks coaching staff also said they would reach out to Semborski when they returned to Philadelphia next year to provide him with a couple of tickets to the game - but to bring his equipment just in case...
Coach 'Q' also added that next time 'Simbo' should wear a shirt and tie!
Eric Semborski would love to continue to work in hockey beyond his rewarding efforts with Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and as Hockey Programs Coordinator a the Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees,NJ. After graduating last year with a degree in Sport and Recreation Management from Temple University, young Mr. Semborski is looking for a fulltime opportunity to apply his education and abundant skill sets.
It is obvious that Semborski is a dedicated and loyal employee who can be counted upon in a moments notice. His resume now includes, former backup goalie for the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks....